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The Soviet Navy - Submarines

Written by Sakhal

The SSGN denomination corresponds to those submarines moved by nuclear energy and armed with non-nuclear guided missiles, in contrast with the SSBN, submarines which launch ballistic missiles. The SSN denomination corresponds to nuclear-powered attack submarines, armed with torpedoes and, in some cases, anti-ship or anti-submarine missiles. On the other hand, the SS denomination corresponds to conventional submarines. During many years, the number of Soviet operational submarines quickly grew due to the construction of conventional units, whose amount had been always superior to that of nuclear-powered units. However, the situation began to change when the submarines of the classes Whiskey and Zulu, built during the 1950s, began to be withdrawn from service. Indeed, at the beginning of the 1980s there were almost equivalent amounts of nuclear-powered and Diesel-powered submarines in the Soviet Navy.

SSGN and SSN submarines

Soviet submarines armed with cruise missiles were initially conceived as a response against the aircraft carrier force of the NATO. Albeit during the 1950s some experimental conversions of the submarines of the Whiskey class were carried out, the first large submarines designed for this purpose were the nuclear-powered units of the Echo class and the Diesel-electric units of the Juliett class. Those of the Echo class were large units belonging to the first generation of nuclear-powered submarines. The first five units were armed with six SS-N-3 long-range missiles, but they were soon superseded by the Echo II class, of larger design and armed with eight missiles, of which 29 units were built, which remained in service at the beginning of the 1980s. Of the conventional Juliett class only sixteen units were built out of the large number initially planned. This class was basically an adaptation of the Foxtrot class SS (conventional attack/patrol submarine), with a taller hull which could house four missiles. The SS-N-3 missiles were fired from elevating launchers stowed at deck level, fitted with a device for avoiding the effects of the jet caused by the launching.


A Soviet SSGN of the Echo II class heading at an ailing pace toward her base in the USSR for being repaired.


The Soviet built twenty-nine units of the 5800-ton SSGN of the Echo II class.


The largest part, if not the totality, of the submarines of the Juliett class was in service with the Northern Fleet, whereas the submarines of the Echo class were distributed among the Northern Fleet and the Pacific Fleet. This was an interesting distribution, for the most outdated and hence less powerful submarines, the Juliett class, were adscribed almost exclusively to the most important core of the Soviet fleets. The cause of this apparent contradiction could have resided in that the increased strength of the submarines of the Echo class was regarded as essential for the anti aircraft carrier operations that eventually would have to be carried out in the Pacific. This disposition of the submarine fleet also led to think that the Juliett-class submarines of the Northern Fleet would be deployed closer to their own bases. Without any doubt, their Diesel-electric propulsion system, which was relatively silent, would allow them to be used with increased effectiveness in patrol missions next to the vanguard lines of the aircraft carrier force of the NATO, rather than trying to directly attack and sink these ships, task for which they did not possess enough speed. The submarines of the Juliett class were also often deployed in the Mediterranean, where their small size granted them certain advantage in comparison with the submarines of the Echo class.

The main weakness of both types of submarines lied in the nature of the missiles that they carried. Not only they had to be fired from the surface, which put the submarines in danger against any kind of anti-submarine aircraft, but also they required data about the target and for mid-course guidance toward the target coming from external sources (for example, aircraft), if they wanted to reach their maximum range with some probability of success. If the target were an aircraft carrier, it would have been more than improbable that a submarine were allowed to effectuate an attack from the surface supported by aircraft. In this case, either the submarine would have suffered a direct attack from the anti-submarine aircraft based in the aircraft carrier, or the support aircraft for the mid-course guidance system would have had to face the fighter squadrons based in the aircraft carrier before being able to effectuate their mission. Only in an extremely confusing tactical situation this type of maneuver would have had some probability of success.

Albeit the oldest Soviet cruise missile submarines had been superseded by technological advances in the early 1980s, they could still have been useful against surface targets other than aircraft carriers, in operations carried out in the open sea. They also kept a considerable capability against ground targets like those which could exist in the Norwegian coast. The SS-N-3 missiles carried a powerful explosive charge and probably they could have been fitted with nuclear warheads.

Submarines of the Charlie class

The other SSGN model of the Soviet military inventory was the Charlie class, whose units were in service mainly in the Northern Fleet, except one or two destined to the Pacific Fleet. These new units had a widening in the prow, which led to think that they had been prepared for housing SS-N-15 anti-submarine missiles. The Charlie class, whose first unit appeared in 1968, constituted the second generation of Soviet nuclear submarines and incorporated substantial improvements in every aspect in comparison with the outdated Echo class. They were smaller, faster and more silent submarines than their predecessors. And, what was even more important, they carried eight SS-N-7 missiles in vertical launching tubes installed in the prow and closed by hatches. The SS-N-7 was a short-range missile (25 nautical miles or 46 kilometers) which could be fired while the submarine was submerged. It did not have to rely on aircraft for correcting its course and it could be guided exclusively by the data obtained by the sensors of the very submarine. The only weakness of the system lied in the problems that the missile - and probably the submarine as well - would have for identifying the position of the aircraft carrier amid her escort ships, particularly due to the electronic countermeasures that the attacked force would apply.


With the submarines of the Charlie class, the Soviet designers tried to overcome the problem of underwater noise emissions.

Defense against the SSGN

For the aircraft carrier force of the NATO, however, it would have been quite easy to defend against the submarines and their missiles, which in theory could arrive suddenly from any direction. An important countermeasure of the NATO could have been to clean the advance route of the aircraft carrier force, eliminating any possible frontal approximation of submarines. The Soviet SSGN which tried the attack from any other position should move at high speed, for speeds could not be summed, and because of that they would be more vulnerable to detection by means of sonobuoys or towed hydrophones. The aircraft carrier, once the submarine were detected, would launch her S-3 Viking anti-submarine aircraft to sink the attacker or force it to desist. This task would be relatively easy with the outdated submarines of the Echo class, due to their extremely noisy propulsion system and the deficient water lines of their hulls. But even the more modern submarines of the Charlie class had not solved the structural problems which caused noise and their propulsion systems were much less silent than those of the submarines of the NATO. It would have been difficult as well for the Soviet Navy that its SSGN crossed the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain barrier to attack the North American aircraft carriers closer to their bases, if they lacked the support from surface units and other submarines. The main threat for the NATO aircraft carriers was in the Norwegian waters, where the Soviet SSGN, nearby to their own bases and hence well supported, could receive information from land-based maritime reconnaissance aircraft and concentrate their force for the attack, which would grant them much greater possibilities of success.


First Generation

-- Whiskey Long Bin SSG (Units: 3) (Armament: 4 x TT; 4 x SS-N-3 SSM)

-- Juliett SSG (Units: 16) (Armament: 10 x TT; 4 x SS-N-3 SSM)

-- Echo II SSGN (Units: 29) (Armament: 10 x TT; 8 x SS-N-3 or SS-N-12 SSM)

Second Generation

-- Charlie I SSGN (Units: 12) (Armament: 6 x TT; 8 x SS-N-7 SSM)

-- Charlie II SSGN (Units: 5) (Armament: 6 x TT; 8 x SS-N-7 or SS-N-9 SSM)

-- Papa SSGN (experimental) (Units: 1) (Armament: 8 x TT; 10 x SS-N-7 (?) or SS-N-9 SSM)

Third Generation

-- Oscar SSGN (Units: 1) (Armament: 8 x TT; 24 x SS-N-19 SSM)

The SSN submarines

All the Soviet nuclear-propelled submarines had their bases in the Arctic or in the Pacific. None of them operated in enclosed seas such as the Baltic Sea or the Black Sea, partly because such vessels do not feel comfortable in such restricted waters, and partly because the huge operational range that their nuclear propulsion plant grants would be wasted if they limited their operation to such seas closely surrounded by land. The thirteen units of the November class were the first nuclear-powered submarines built for the Soviet Navy. They were built with great haste and their design was based more in data obtained by means of espionage than in data obtained from a prolonged research. Their hull was much longer and less perfect than that of the contemporary North American SSN. They had a terribly noisy propulsion system which however allowed them to reach a maximum speed of 25 knots during immersion. The original strategic mission for which the November class had been conceived, in virtue of which they had been fitted with nuclear torpedoes, was soon abandoned and replaced by an anti-aircraft-carrier role, for which they were fitted with conventional torpedoes. But even in this role their value was doubtful, given the capability of modern sonars and the introduction of the S-3 Viking in the air wing of aircraft carriers.

The other large SSN submarine in service with the Soviet Navy was the Victor class. The first unit of this class appeared in 1968 and, with some modifications, subsequent units continued in production during the first 1980s, which indicated that the Soviet were satisfied with their prestations. They were submarines of the second generation with an improved hull, capability for diving at greater depths and a much more silent propulsion system capable of impulsing them at speeds around 30 knots during immersion. The last versions of the Victor class were armed, as believed, with SS-N-15 anti-submarine missiles. With the SSGN of the Charlie class in full production in the late 1960s, the Soviet Union was unable to build the desired number of SSN and thus the five oldest SSGN of the Echo I class were modified to increase the number of SSN. Since the design of the Echo class was a derivative of that of the November class, it suffered the same limitations after being converted into the SSN version. More recently another conversion was carried out when three SSBN of the Yankee class were modified to conform them to the terms of the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty.


The Soviet built thirteen units of nuclear attack submarines of the November class.


A submarine of the Victor class patrolling on the South China Sea (left image). The Soviet built eighteen units of nuclear attack submarines of the Victor class.

Deployment missions

Of the two Soviet fleets which operated SSN in the 1980s, the Northern Fleet had almost all of the modern submarines of the Victor class, along with approximately half of those of the November class. Thus, to the Pacific Fleet belonged the rest of the November, the five Echo I and a few Victor. This distribution was a faithful reflection of the way in which the US Navy had deployed its own SSN, albeit these were more numerous due to the division that the Soviet Navy established between SSN and SSGN within its own attack submarines. This means that the Soviet submarines armed only with torpedoes could have taken part in an attack alongside submarines equipped with missiles, particularly against a convoy or an enemy combat force. The function of the SSN would have been to create a more favorable environment for the SSGN to launch their missiles against the escort ships, leaving some of them out of action and creating the kind of confusion in which the submarines armed with torpedoes could take advantage.

The fact that the submarines of the Victor class were armed with SS-N-15 missiles clearly revealed that an important anti-submarine function had been assigned to these vessels. However, the capability for carrying out this mission with effectiveness would depend on where and how they were used. In the case that they tried to cross the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain barrier, either on their own or supporting other submarines, the submarines of the Victor class would have been in disadvantage against the submarines of the NATO, which could navigate at low speed, minimizing so their noise levels and obtaining the best prestations from their own sonars to detect the enemy submarines. Probably, the submarines of the Victor class would have needed to approach at high speed to avoid the surface patrols, and in any case they were more noisy submarines fitted with less effective sensors than those of the submarines of the NATO. However, the submarines of the Victor class could have been very effective in the Norwegian Sea, where they could remain silent while awaiting the approximation of the aircraft carrier force of the NATO or the intrusion of the western SSN into the bases of the Soviet SSBN.

Submarines of the Alfa class

The submarines of the Alfa class were outside the general development line of Soviet SSN. They were very small as nuclear submarines, which indicated that they had a reactor of advanced design, and the utilization of titanium in the construction of the hull could probably allow to reach depths below 600 meters. It was proven that they could reach the amazing speed of 40 knots during immersion, which can be considered a notorius technical progress, even if considering their reduced size. However, it seemed that some problems with leaks inside the hull caused long delays in the production of these submarines and the original prototype was scrapped.

The units of the Alfa class were conceived, almost surely, as submarines specialized in anti-SSBN missions, albeit it was hard to presume where could they find their potential victims, especially in the open ocean. It was quite surprising that, in a time in which high speeds had lost the largest part of their tactical value due to the development of modern weapons and anti-submarine sensors, the Soviet had chosen to concentrate valuable resources in a design which seemed more related to brute force than to sophistication or stealth to penetrate across the anti-submarine barriers of the NATO. However, the combination of high speed and great capability of immersion would have rendered difficult the task of destroying the submarines of the Alfa class, and to a certain extent also the task of localizing them. The concern of the US Navy regarding this new submarine, gifted with great capability of maneuver, was evident, for experiments with a high-depth target-seeking torpedo were being carried out.


The nuclear-powered attack submarines of the Akula class incorporated notable advances regarding suppression of noises and combat capability, showing up that the North American did not expect such reduction of noise levels until the early 1990s. The Akula class was a subsequent development of the Alfa class.


First Generation

-- November SSN (Units: 13) (Armament: 12 x TT, 32 x T or Mine)

-- Echo SSN (Units: 5) (Armament: 10 x TT)

-- Yankee SSN (Units: 7 (?)) (Armament: 6 x TT)

Second Generation

-- Victor I SSN (Units: 16) (Armament: 8 x TT, T and SS-N-15 or SS-N-16 Sub-SSM)

-- Victor II SSN (Units: 7) (Armament: 8 x TT, T and SS-N-15 or SS-N-16 Sub-SSM)

-- Victor III SSN (Units: 8) (Armament: 8 x TT, T and SS-N-15 or SS-N-16 Sub-SSM)

-- Alfa SSN (Units: 5) (Armament: 6 x TT, T and SS-N-15 or SS-N-16 Sub-SSM)

SS submarines

In all the considerations about the importance that conventional submarines could have during a certain conflict, the distance factor must be taken into much consideration. The number of operational submarines in the Soviet Navy has been often compared with the lesser number of submarines that Hitler had in the algid moments of the Battle of the Atlantic. This comparison has the defect of not taking into consideration the fact that the German submarines operated from Norway and from the western French coast, less than 1000 miles away from the Atlantic maritime routes. On the contrary, the Soviet submarines which would have operated from the Kola Peninsula would have had to travel more than twice that distance, and also cross the anti-submarine barrier of the NATO laid along Greenland, Iceland and Great Britain.

Because of all these reasons it was doubtful that the medium submarines built in such large quantity during the 1950s could carry out a prolonged campaign against the Atlantic maritime routes. Only during the travel, these submarines would deplete more than half of their estimated operational range (7000 nautical miles or 13000 kilometers). And for this they could employ a maximum of 15 days from the 45 days of estimated continued navigation. Besides, these numbers refer to the time required for reaching just the northernmost routes. Only the 2000-ton submarines of the Zulu class and their successors of the Foxtrot and Tango classes could be effectively employed in this kind of missions. And, even so, these submarines would suffer the typical inconvenients of Diesel-electric engines: the necessity of navigating at low speeds to save fuel in long-range operations, and the vulnerability of the vessel against anti-submarine patrol aircraft when navigating in the surface, especially in the vicinity of the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain defensive barrier. On the other hand, the western submarines, the British and the Dutch, would have to travel only 500 miles (925 kilometers) to reach their patrol position, while constantly operating inside the aerial space of the NATO.

It should be considered as well that the relatively small number of large submarines that the Soviet Union built and the way in which they were deployed do not suggest the idea that they were intended for being used in a conventional anti-ship role. The submarines of the Tango class, which succeeded the standard Foxtrot design, were built at a pace of two per year, and both classes of submarines were deployed in the four Soviet fleets, two of which would not have had access to the open seas in the event of a conflict. In the early 1980s, out of all the medium submarines, only a few and obsolete of the Whiskey class and a dozen of the Romeo class remained in service.


A patrol submarine of the Foxtrot class, of somewhat neglected appearance, navigating nearby to a destroyer of the Kashin class.


This is one of the five Diesel-propelled patrol submarines of the Tango class built in the early 1970s.

A defensive role?

The only possible conclusion, given the aforementioned reasons, is that even the large oceanic submarines had as main and prioritary mission to defend the Soviet littoral waters. In the Northern Fleet, this defensive role would have been clearly carried out in the Norwegian Sea, where the submarines of the Foxtrot class would have patrolled within sectors determined as part of a line of global defense. Besides, they would have taken part, along with other forces of the Warsaw Pact, in coordinated attacks against the naval forces of the NATO. In the Pacific they would have had a similar role, creating a defensive line around the bases of the SSBN and attempting to break the blockade imposed by the forces of the US Navy in the Tsushima Strait.

The units ascribed to the Black Sea Fleet lent an important contribution to the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron. There operated several of the most recent submarines of the Tango class, which were believed to transport SS-N-15 anti-submarine missiles in their enlarged fore section, besides the standard torpedo tubes. This armament would have substantially increased their effectiveness against the large SSBN of the US Navy belonging to the 6th Fleet, especially if they were used jointly with surface units during anti-submarine operations carried out by the Soviet Navy. Any western submarine which had betrayed her own presence by torpedoing the Soviet cruisers and destroyers could in turn have been quickly sunk by missiles launched from the Soviet submarines, which could reach a considerable distance.

The Baltic Sea would have been probably the less suitable area for deploying these large submarines, not only because of its relatively shallow and closed waters, but also because targets of interest were less abundant there. Because of this the Soviet Union had to develop a new small/medium submarine for operations in the Baltic Sea and in the Black Sea.

Mining operations

All the Soviet submarines, either the nuclear or the Diesel-electric, had capability for mining operations and could transport between 30 and 60 mines, instead of torpedoes. The submarines of the Foxtrot class could have been used in this role at distances so considerable as those in the North Sea, without this mission requiring the dangerous crossing of the Greenland-Iceland-Great Britain defensive barrier. And of course, their capability for mining would have always constituted a great advantage in the Baltic Sea.

The Soviet Navy, unlike the US Navy, could expect little help from its allies regarding submarine operations. Only to the Polish and Bulgarian navies a handful of outdated submarines of the Whiskey and Romeo classes had been transferred. The Polish Navy received four units of the Whiskey class and the Bulgarian Navy received two units of the Whiskey class and another two of the Romeo class. All of them should remain only little time in service to be later replaced by other Soviet secondhand submarines. None of the client states of the Warsaw Pact had coasts other than those in inner seas (the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea), which considerably reduced their needs of the submarine weapon.


First Generation

-- Whiskey SS (Units: 60) (Armament: 6 x TT, 12 x T or 24 x Mine)

-- Zulu IV SS (Units: 11) (Armament: 10 x TT, 22 x T or 44 x Mine)

-- Romeo SS (Units: 10) (Armament: 8 x TT, 14 x T or 28 x Mine)

-- Golf modified SS (Units: 3) (Armament: 10 x TT)

-- Foxtrot SS (Units: 60) (Armament: 10 x TT, 22 x T or 44 x Mine)

Second Generation

-- Tango SS (Units: 14) (Armament: 10 x TT, T and SS-N-15 Sub-SSM)

Related articles

The Soviet Navy - Aircraft carriers

The Soviet Navy - Surface ships

The Soviet Navy - SLBM

Categories: Submarines - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2020-10-04

Article updated: 0000-00-00

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